What is the difference between hard money and soft money? Or between Medicare and Medicaid? These are just a few of the many well-used - but often misunderstood - terms in US politics.
Delegates The party members whose votes at the National Convention officially determine the two parties' presidential candidates are known as delegates.
Most of the delegates at the convention are obliged to vote for a candidate according to the result of primaries or caucuses in their home state. They are referred to as "pledged" or "elected" delegates.
Some delegates, however, are "unpledged" and are able to vote for any candidate at the convention.
In the Democratic Party, these unpledged delegates are called "super-delegates". They include senior members of the party hierarchy, and rank-and-file members elected to the Democratic National Committee.
Donkey, Democratic The donkey has become the established - although unofficial - political symbol for the Democratic Party. Democratic Party historians say the symbol was first used during Andrew Jackson's presidential campaign in 1828.
Labelled a "jackass" by his opponents, he adopted the donkey himself for his campaign posters and it stuck with him as a result of his stubborn reputation.
The cartoonist Thomas Nast later also used the donkey - to represent a group of northern anti-civil war Democrats, and more generally as a symbol for pro-Democrat editors and newspapers.
By the presidential campaign of 1880 the symbol was firmly established. A cartoon in the New York Daily Graphic showed the losing Democrat candidate, Winfield S Hancock, leading a team of party crusaders into battle on the back of a donkey.
Critics of the party regard the donkey as stubborn, silly and ridiculous - while die-hard Democrats say it represents the humble, homely, smart, courageous and loveable aspects of the party.
Earmark A provision placed in congressional legislation or committee reports that directs federal funds to a specific project. Members of Congress will typically seek to insert earmarks that benefit particular projects, locations or organisations in the district or state they represent. (See pork barrel politics).
Electoral College The collective term for the 538 electors who officially elect the president and vice-president of the United States. Presidential candidates require a majority of 270 college votes to win the presidency. The number of electors each state is allocated is equal to the combined total of its senators and representatives in Congress.
The college system was originally conceived before the existence of political parties and was designed to allow the electors to act as independent voters. Electors are now considered expected to follow the wishes of the majority of voters in each state.
However, there have been a number of cases in recent elections where at least one elector has voted for a candidate other than the one they were pledged to.
Two states, Nebraska and Maine, have eliminated the "winner takes all" process and instead now divide their electors in accordance with the proportion of the popular vote given to each candidate.
Elephant, Republican The traditional symbol for the Republican Party first appeared in a cartoon in the 7 November 1874 edition of Harper's Weekly by the artist Thomas Nast.
Pro-Democrat newspapers were accusing the Republican president of "Caesarism" for allegedly seeking a third term in office. The New York Herald also ran a hoax story that all the animals in the city's Central Park Zoo had escaped.
Nast drew an ass wearing a lion's skin to represent the Herald, frightening away the animals in the forest (Central Park). Among them was an elephant labelled "Republican Vote", tripping up in its haste to escape the blown-up scare of "Caesarism".
After that year's mid-term elections, in which the Republicans did particularly badly, Nast pictured an elephant in a trap to illustrate how the Republican vote had been decoyed from its normal allegiance. The image was picked up by other cartoonists and quickly came to symbolise the party, not just Republican voters.
Supporters of the Democratic Party regard the elephant as bungling, stupid, pompous and conservative. However Republicans, who have adopted the animal as their official symbol, think of it as dignified, strong and intelligent.
Federal Election Commission (FEC) In 1975, Congress created the Federal Election Commission (FEC) - an independent regulatory agency - to administer and enforce the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA).
The FEC discloses campaign finance information, enforces the provisions of the act, and oversees the public funding of presidential elections.
By law, no more than three of the six members of the commission can be members of the same political party.
During the election period, the commission collects and publishes all the sources of finance of all the running candidates.
Federal Election Campaign Act First implemented in 1971, the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) is a US federal law that provides for the disclosure of financial contributions to federal campaigns.
In 1974, amendments were made to the act to toughen campaign laws after the Watergate scandal in 1972. The new amendments established strict disclosure requirements for campaign donations, set specific limits for those donations, instituted public financing of presidential elections, and established the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to govern the whole process.
Federal matching funds Money supplied to campaign funds from public resources and administered by the Federal Election Commission. Federal matching funds match donations made by individual contributors dollar-for-dollar up to a maximum of $250 per donation.
Candidates are not obliged to take matching funds, but if they opt to do so they must restrict their spending to a maximum of approximately $40m during the presidential primary period.
Funding is paid out in three stages:
- Matching funds for the primaries
- A block grant for the conventions
- A further block grant for the general election
Those who decline matching funds are free from any spending limits (although they are still bound by contribution limits including a $2,000 limit from each individual).
To qualify for funds, candidates need to show they are viable by raising at least $100,000 in individual donations, including at least $5,000 from 20 different states.
Candidates who fail to receive at least 10% of the popular vote in two successive primary elections lose their eligibility for continued payments, unless and until they receive at least 20% of the vote in a later primary.
The two major parties - the Democrats and Republicans - are automatically entitled to a public grant to pay for the cost of conventions. Minor parties are also entitled to a smaller subsidy in proportion to the vote they received. New parties are not eligible.
Founding fathers An imprecise term used most often to describe those involved in the framing and adoption of the constitution at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787.
The convention brought together 55 delegates from what were then the 13 states.
Their decisions and the constitution they drew up laid the groundwork for the country's political system as it is today.
The term is sometimes also used to include influential figures in the struggle for independence and those who fought the Revolutionary War.
Front-loading "Front-loading" describes the tendency, which has become apparent in recent years, for states to move their primaries and caucuses forward, in an attempt to be among the first states holding a nominating contest.
State authorities believe that coming at the front of the queue increases their influence on the nomination process. However, if too many states hold their contests in a short space of time, critics argue, candidates are unable to connect with voters in each individual state.
A side-effect is that the process starts earlier, and is drawn out over a longer period.
In 2008, both major parties attempted to crack down on front-loading by ruling that only certain states were allowed to hold contests before 5 February, and that any state that broke the rules was to have its convention delegation either taken away (the Democratic penalty) or halved (the Republican punishment).
Governor Each of the 50 US states has a governor, who - as the state's chief administrator - is responsible for the effective and efficient workings of the state's various departments.
A governor's term of office lasts for four years. The number of times a governor can be re-elected varies from state to state.
Grand Old Party (GOP) The traditional nickname for the Republican Party widely used in American political reporting.
The party's official history traces the term back to the late 19th Century citing an article in the Boston Post headlined "The GOP Doomed."
The party website suggests the term Grand Old Party may have evolved from the term used to refer to British Prime Minister William Gladstone - the GOM or the Grand Old Man.
In Richard Nixon's 1964 presidential campaign the acronym was used briefly as the basis for the slogan the "Go-Party", but by the late 1970s it had become firmly associated with the term Grand Old Party as it is today.